Film Reviews:

Face of Another

(Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1966)

[Face of Another]Teshigahara is most famous for his slightly odd 1964 film Woman of the Dunes (Suna no Onna) in which a man is kept prisoner in a deep sand pit by the female of the title. That was just one of several films Teshigahara directed based upon the novels of author Kôbô Abe. Face of Another is, if you'll excuse the pun, another. Okuyama, a married salaryman whose face is badly burned after a terrible (unseen) accident, turns to a specialist who can create a synthetic face mask that looks as believable as the real thing. After undergoing the surgery, the salaryman discards his bandages, believing he can take on a new persona and lead a different, more confident life. However, he still feels ill at ease with his wife - from who he keeps his experimental facial secret.

The opening shot remains, in my experience at least, unqiue; with the X-rayed head of Okuyama talking. His hinging jaw bones explaining just how he came to be in his unfortunate situation. We never get to see what the salaryman looked like before his artificial face is manufactured for him and this is part of what Abe and Teshigahara are interested in exploring. Most everyone considers their appearance and how others react to that. Prior to his operation, the perpetually bandaged Okuyama, increasingly feels a sense of loss of the self. A loss of personal identity. Even his wife, who does her best to act as if the horrific accident hasn't changed how she feels about her husband, finds it hard to relate to him the same way before he lost his skin. Gradually, Okuyama finds it more and more difficult to be his old self. "Your mask has more character than you think" the surgeon tells him. And his right.

Very much a product of its era (in fact it often feels older than its 1966 release date), Face of Another mixes intellectual arthouse ruminations with an almost noir thriller styling at times. It explores how society is only really interested in the face of the individual instead of the ideal - the person behind that external appearance. There's one memorably nightmarish sequence when Okuyama walks the streets at night surrounded by hordes of featureless humans. It's closest cinematic sibling is undoubtedly John Frankenhiemer's Seconds in which Rock Hundson undergoes similarly disturbing changes. (Amazingly, for such esoteric films, both were released the same year.)

There's a slight but fascinating sub plot involving another person struggling to come to terms with a facial disfigurement. An attractive young woman is obsessed that the scar that covers just half of her face will repell all potential suitors and seeks solice in a obsessively close relationship with her understanding brother. As portrayed by the naturally beautiful Miki Irie, she demonstrates that it is possible to be scarred but still attractive. Her struggle develops differently from that of Okuyama and concludes in typical Japanese tragic fashion.

An eerie atmosphere pervades the entire film. It exists in a shadowy world that feels distant despite the frequent extreme close-ups that director of photography Hiroshi Segawa brings to the screen. Toru Takemitsu's schizophernic, avant garde soundtrack is also a key component in the unsettling feel. The occasionally ponderous dialogue and sedate pacing might be a challenge to some, but are well suited to the subject matter. However, Teshigahara's vivid direction (including some striking moments of almost surreal expressionism) ensures that the stunning black and white visuals, and the desire to engage the audience on a cerebral level, results in thrillingly thought-provoking cinema. 7/10

Rob Dyer (October 2004)

See also:

Eyes Without A Face
The Invisible Man
The Mask


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